Photography is always a meditation on time, but for California-based photographer Richard Misrach, it often seems to be the driving force behind his practice. After emerging as a pioneer in the use of color film and large-scale prints in the 1970s, Misrach spent the next four decades of his career documenting the fragile relationship between man and the environment, paying special attention to decaying, off-kilter landscapes. His photographs of former nuclear test sites in Nevada and Utah, or the wreckage left in the wake of the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland fire, demonstrate how man interacts with the natural world, alters it and then leaves it behind. By returning to the same locales—the swamps of rural Louisiana, the beaches of Hawaii—Misrach archives our shifting historical memory of these sites, and by photographing the same locations at different times of day or year, he reminds us how deeply fluctuations in the natural world affect our experience of place.
His latest series, “On the Beach 2.0,” is currently on view at the Pace MacGill Gallery in Chelsea. Monumental, exquisitely detailed prints—some up to 7×12 feet—of water, sand and solitary figures, or couples lost in private moments, line the walls. The photos were taken from the eighth story balcony of Misrach’s Honolulu hotel room during his trimonthly visits to the island, where he spends hours sitting, waiting and watching the beach below. This unique birds-eye perspective, or as Misrach calls it “God’s eye view,” lends the photographs a sense of both remove and spontaneity.
As the title suggests, this series marks a return to previous subject matter. The original “On the Beach” project, first exhibited at Pace in 2004, was a response to the events of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, images of the collisions were omnipresent in the news, and artists, directors and writers began producing work that directly addressed the events of that day. Misrach felt unsure how or whether to do so himself. Several weeks after 9/11, he visited Honolulu on vacation and noticed, from his hotel balcony, the unnerving similarity between the ubiquitous images of bodies falling from the burning towers and the untethered bodies of the swimmers floating in the salt water below. The isolation and physical beauty of these lone figures, suspended in space, became a source of fascination for Misrach that endures in his new series.
Yet despite the similar subject matter and composition of the shots, 2.0 is a different body of work, both in intent and presentation. According to Sofia Cordova, Misrach’s Studio Manager (and, full disclosure, my sister-in-law), the new series is about waiting and what happens when you do—the strange, small, secret moments that compose life. She mentioned that a major inspiration was Walker Evans’ 1938 series “Many Are Called,” in which Evans used a hidden camera to snap portraits of unsuspecting riders on the New York City subway. Over the course of the project, Evans began to see the subway itself as his studio—an idea that resonated with Misrach. Here, the public space of this balmy Honolulu beach is transformed into the photographer’s studio; his unknowing subjects drift in and out of the frame as he stands watch.
In this way, “On the Beach 2.0” is less overtly political than many of Misrach’s most well-known series. “Cancer Alley” traces the environmental degradation of a stretch of the Mississippi River lined with chemical plants, and his ongoing series “Desert Cantos” catalogues the history of the American West, reflecting on its use as a site for testing nuclear bombs. But his work, with its rich tones and painstaking compositions, is always too beautiful to seem heavy-handed. This new series is not a comment on any particular event or environmental disaster, but, as Misrach remarked in a recent interview with Architectural Digest, more of a metaphysical contemplation on the place of man in nature.
It also serves as a celebration of photographic forms that Misrach has only recently embraced: the digital camera and pigment print. For the original “On the Beach” series, he worked with an 8-x-10 camera, but for “2.0” he used a digital camera with a telephoto lens. This switch allowed Misrach to print much larger images than he ever could before and to render minor details with an astounding clarity. Misrach is an artist whose work benefits exponentially from being viewed in person; the power of his photographs lies in the phenomenological experience of seeing them up close and being overwhelmed by their scale, their precision, their lushness. Rather than frozen images of a sublime landscape, these infinite, tropical expanses of water and sand, often stripped of a horizon line, become enveloping and consuming. They allow you to share in the awe his subjects must feel, floating alone and at peace in the middle of the bright blue sea.
The detail allowed by his shift to digital makes careful inspection of each photograph well worth it. Perfectly realized footprints in the sand are echoed by the soft dimples of the waves. Viewers can make out the foot of a woman whose legs are wrapped around her boyfriend’s muscular body, pick out the debris that litters the sand, and even read the title of a magazine article that a heavily tanned shirtless man uses to shield his face from the sun: “Living with mystery.”
Misrach has shied away from portraits since his earliest days as a working photographer in the 1970s. Though many of the figures in “2.0” face away from the camera or have their faces obscured, this series is as close to portraiture as Misrach has come since “Telegraph 3 A.M.,” his 1971 series which documents late-night passersby on the streets of Berkeley. Still, the individual identity of the subjects remains secondary to the quiet beauty of their actions as they embrace one another, doze on the sand or float sedately on their backs.
The ocean itself is a sheet of liquid silver, deep and endless. Instead of a roiling mass of waves, it appears as calm and flat as wallpaper. Misrach’s newfound ability to stop time—to capture milliseconds instead of minutes—comes into full effect here; in one photograph of a man swimming far out at sea, it’s possible to make out individual droplets that fall from his limbs as he cuts through the water.
The barebones titles of the works, which include only the date and time that they were made (i.e. “Untitled, February 14, 2012, 6:19 PM”), serve as further evidence of his obsession with the temporal. These time stamps remind us that Misrach was present at these specific moments when the camera shutter clicked, adding an entirely new dimension to his prints. His photographs are not just about historical time or geological time, but personal, intimate time—they document the passage of Misrach’s own life and reflect what he finds compelling at any given moment.
This record is beautifully illustrated in “Chronologies,” a survey of his work over the past 30 years that was published in 2005. Flipping through the book’s pages highlights Misrach’s habit of jumping from subject to subject and erases the need to ask why he revisited this particular body of work now. His work is presented in chronological order rather than thematically, and an unspoken rhythm emerges from the pages: desert, fire, desert, jungle, rotting animal corpses, clouds, fire. Again and again, he returns to the desert, the sky and the sea.
As Misrach notes in an interview with SeeSaw magazine, “My working process is privileged over a constructed narrative.”
The common thread that binds Misrach’s work is his eye for the sublime and the bizarre—an understanding of the beauty and terror of nature in keeping with the 19th century Romantic tradition. An underlying apocalyptic quality is evident in many of his works, including those that do not directly confront disaster. Even with “On the Beach 2.0,” a series that explicitly exalts the majesty of nature, it can be difficult not to read something darker into the photographs—especially after knowing the context of the original series.
Misrach’s two beach series take their name from the eponymous work of Cold War-era science fiction penned by British author Nevil Shute. Shute’s “On the Beach” unfolds in the final days of a nuclear holocaust, as the radiation that has already wiped out the northern hemisphere is slowly carried by southward winds to the sun-kissed beaches of Australia. The characters in the story carry on with their daily lives even as they begin to take ill from radiation poisoning—they have dinner with their families, show up at the office, spend afternoons at the beach.
The title of Shute’s book was taken, in turn, from the biting T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.” Poem and book alike capture the absurdity of trying to maintain control in the face of chaos—of the fallacy of keeping calm and carrying on. Though we can try to temper our despair with routine or with artistic creation, even the most quotidian activities become surreal in the wake of terrorist attacks or nuclear war.
Eliot distilled this exercise in cognitive dissonance down to a pair of phrases: “In this last of meeting places/We grope together/And avoid speech/Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.”
“On the Beach” serves as a visual representation of Eliot’s harrowing words, but “On the Beach 2.0” suggests the inherent worth of our small daily actions. Ten years after the debut of the original project, Misrach seems to be affirming that man and nature do not always have to exist in opposition—that there will, after all, forever be room for us on this last of meeting places, where the sand meets the sea.